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Musk Is Trying To Dismiss An Environmental Lawsuit
SpaceX's Starship demonstrates Musk's worrying duality.
This year, 4/20, was a day to remember! Musk finally lit his 120 m tall interplanetary rocket and sent it flying to the heavens. Engineers, space nerds and stoners all looked up in unison and gawped in wonder. This awe wouldn’t last long, though, as only 4 minutes into its flight, Starship failed to detach from its booster and had to self-detonate. Surprisingly, this failed launch wasn’t bad for Starship; it was expected, as almost no rocket launches successfully the first time. The real problem was that Starship obliterated its launchpad, spreading a vast plume of debris, pulverised concrete and particulated soil for miles around, potentially damaging the precious federally owned wildlife reserve. As a result, Starship has been grounded by the FAA, and the FAA and SpaceX have been slapped with a damning lawsuit, which SpaceX is now desperately trying to get thrown out. But why is SpaceX trying to weasel its way out of this? And is this a little hypocritical of Musk?
Let’s start with why this launchpad blew up during the launch. Most rockets have fire trenches underneath them that spread out the rocket exhaust over a large area. This ensures the launch pad’s safety and avoids harm to the ground, infrastructure, or the rocket itself. In true Elon fashion, SpaceX didn’t bother with fire trenches and opted for a water-cooled steel plate instead. This would make the exhaust less manageable, but presumably, Musk chose it because it is cheaper to build and easier to get planning permission for. After all, fire trenches are massive, and SpaceX’s Boca Chica site is small and restricted by the federally protected land around it.
As I said early, Musk aimed to, and eventually did, launch the mega-rocket on April 4th in a thinly veiled attempt at childish humour. However, while the rocket and launch tower were ready on time, the steel plate was not. Rather than wait for the launch pad to be complete, Musk and his engineers looked at the data from their static fire test of Starship on the launchpad at 50% thrust and used it to determine if the bare concrete pad could handle a fully stacked Starship launch. They found that it could and proceeded with the launch.
Now, Starship has twice the thrust of NASA’s SLS, and NASA engineers calculated that the SLS required fire trenches to launch properly. So, it was no surprise to many engineers when Starship destroyed its launch pad, leaving behind a deep creator and spreading debris and particulates for miles around.
This destruction wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t for Starship’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. You see, surrounding this site is a federally owned wildlife reserve with a very delicate shoreline ecosystem. This reserve is home to a plethora of endangered and at-risk species, such as Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, plovers and ocelots. Spreading tonnes and tonnes of pulverised soil and concrete through their environment isn’t going to do these guys any good. Concrete contains silica, which, when breathed in as fine powder, can cause silicosis, and many soils contain heavy metals, which, when spread out, can be detrimental to animals’ health. Moreover, this dust can physically clog up organs or change the ecosystem, which can both be incredibly harmful (if you want to learn more about the launch’s environmental impact, read my article here).
Thankfully, you can’t get away with such a laissez-faire attitude towards nature these days, and the FAA removed Starship’s launch licence while they investigated why this incident was allowed to happen.
But that wasn’t the end of SpaceX’s woes. Organisations and charities responsible for the health and well-being of the impacted areas, namely The Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, the SurfRider Foundation, Save Rio Grande Valley, and the Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation of Texas, teamed up to sue the FAA for letting this launch happen.
They wrote in their lawsuit that “the FAA failed to take the requisite hard look at the proposed project and has concluded that significant adverse effects will not occur due to purported mitigation measures.” So, to save their ass, SpaceX quickly requested and became a co-defendant of the FAA.
Why? Well, SpaceX is desperate to get Starship into operation. Its development has cost SpaceX billions, and much of that cost has been covered by investors who want to see a return. This isn’t a problem as Starship already has several commercial contracts, such as its $2.89 billion contract to land humans on the Moon by late 2025 as part of NASA’s Artemis 3 mission and then again for Artemis 4 in 2028 under a separate $1.15 billion contract. What’s more, SpaceX’s own Starlink will soon require regular Starship launches if it wants to expand its coverage and speeds to meet growing demand.
It will most likely take SpaceX several years after a successful launch to build and scale its Starship fleet to meet these contracts. If they don’t do this, then some of these contracts might be delayed or even lost. This could lose SpaceX a vast sum of money and send them screaming into financial instability. So, time is running out for SpaceX to get Starship up and running.
But to get the Starship into operation, they need to get its launch licence back, and if the FAA loses this lawsuit, then that might not happen for a very long time. This is odd as Musk has already announced that Starship will attempt another launch within a month, yet it currently has no route to getting its launch licence back. But this is just another example of Musk being the ultimate bulls**t hype-man.
SpaceX, as the co-defendant, has filed for the federal court to dismiss this lawsuit to accelerate this process and get its launch licence back. In this filing, SpaceX denied every allegation made by the lawsuit and argued that the environmental groups lacked legal grounds for their claims, which is interesting as environmental liability (i.e. being sued for damaging nature that others derive benefit from) already has precedent in US courts. So, I will be incredibly surprised if this motion gets the lawsuit thrown out.
So, who is likely to win? Well, it’s hard to say; it all hangs on what evidence is brought forward of environmental damage and if it is conclusive enough. As SpaceX didn’t use the far more effective “not enough evidence against us” argument to get the case dismissed, we can assume that there is, at the very least, enough evidence to warrant being taken to court.
This is yet another example of Musk’s hypocritical duality. He wanted to preserve free speech by buying Twitter, and then almost right away started restricting controversial accounts’ reach on the platform. He wants to bring about autonomous vehicles to make the roads safer, yet Tesla Full Self Driving is under investigation for causing numerous fatal accidents, and Musk doesn’t seem to care. Tesla has brought about the EV revolution, and their cars do have a lower carbon footprint than equivalent combustion vehicles, but they still use environmentally dubious materials like cobalt in their batteries and don’t seem to want to make the company’s back end genuinely sustainable. Musk says that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity, yet the Starship uses fossil fuel derived methane fuel, not carbon-neutral bio-methane, which isn’t that much more expensive. SpaceX is also meant to save humanity by taking us to the stars, but it seems Musk is happy to sacrifice delicate ecosystems in the process and isn’t even prepared to defend this in court, instead opting to try and snake its way out of it.
But is this really hypocritical? You can argue that if we hold onto our ideologies too tightly, we make it impossible to make progress and that Musk is being pragmatic in order to advance us. In a way, that is true. But there is an air of entitlement to Musk and his companies, as if he knows the right way forward, and anyone who criticises him and his ways has to be categorically wrong. I mean, surely Musk can still reach for Mars, autonomous cars and world-beating EVs whilst still taking greater responsibility for their shortcomings? After all, he is now the poster boy for sustainability.
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